David Cipra's book, Lighthouses and Lightships of the Gulf of Mexico, made note of the fact that much has been written about lighthouses along the Atlantic seaboard but that "only a few brief notes can be found on Southern Lights'. He stated that prior to his own research, "the records of many lighthouses were buried in dusty files and the lighthouses forgotten . . . . The number of lighthouses still lost in dusty files is unknown, even to this day.
The Calcasieu River Lighthouse in Southwest Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico was one of these lost lighthouses whose records were buried in the files of the National Archives and the United States Coast Guard's Historians office. Recent research by the McNeese State University Archives Department has brought these records to light, and the following documentation is an edited version from them.
Efforts to obtain lighthouse to mark the entrance at the mouth of the Calcasieu River (at Calcasieu River) date back to 1854. At that time the Lighthouse Board recommended that a lighthouse be built at the mouth of the river, and $6000. was appropriated for it.
However, the lighthouse was not built until a number of years later because of disputes over whether a lighthouse was actually needed, disputes over who or whom owned the land, and absorborant prices for the land that the government wanted to built the lighthouse on.
Finally, in 1876 the government proceeded with plans to build the lighthouse. The government at first wanted a massive tower, similar to other towers along the Gulf, but soon realized that the soil was too soft to hold the weight of this type of tower. Instead they decided on a lightweight, hollow, cast iron screwpile substructure which was turned into the ground rather than pounded in.
The lighthouse tower itself was prefabricated in a locomotive factory in Portland, Maine in 1872, and had been in storage at the Head of Passes Depot in New Orleans. It was first lit on the evening of December 9, 1876.
The black, pyramidal tower, sheathed in boiler-plate iron, surmounted by a cast-iron cornice and lantern and rose 53 feet above the marsh and must have been an awesome sight to those first seeing it.
The lower platform of the lighthouse was raised several feet off the ground and was reached by straight steps up the side. There was a round 4000 gallon cistern underneath the main structure and the kitchen was attached to the lighthouse via a breeze-way. Even though the lighthouse exterior was covered by sheets of iron, painted black, the Eighth District Lighthouse Engineers Office turned aside objections that the "quarters within this kind of house would be insufferably warm" by recommending that the interior walls be lined with wood. According to the floor plans and recorded memories, the lighthouse had a living room, a store room, a fuel room and water tanks on the first floor. A bedroom was located on the second floor and the third floor watch room housed extra oil and supplies for the lantern. Each level had windows and the floors were bare wood.
The lantern was a fourth order Fresnel lens which used kerosene and later oil as fuel. Records indicate it was a fixed white light.
Insects were a problem at the lighthouse as is evident by a letter written in 1927 by Keeper William Hill to the Superintendent of Lighthouses, "I respectively report that this station, for the past three nights, has been so overrun with various species of bugs and insects that it has been impossible, with constant care, to keep a good light. They settle on the lantern glass so thickly that it is doubtful if the light is visible 3 miles distant."
Over the years several hurricanes and numerous storms hit the lighthouse. Each one heavily damaged or destroyed the out-buildings, but the lighthouse always survived. During the hurricane of 1877 many local people took refuge at the lighthouse. For his daring efforts in the hurricane of 1916, Keeper William Hill received a commendation for his successful efforts to save the lighthouse from destruction.
The first keeper of the lighthouse was Charles Crossman, who kept the light from its beginning until 1913. He was followed by Stephen Hill and his assistant William Hill. Later records indicated that William took over as keeper and was assisted by his brother Philip. The Hills served until 1929 when they were replaced by E. A. Malone who served until the lighthouse was discontinued.
As a child, Grace Reeves, spent many summers at the Calcasieu River lighthouse with her great uncles William and Philip. She was also the granddaughter to William Hill who became the head keeper at the Sabine Pass Lighthouse.
Mrs. Reeves recalled that the Hills were also responsible for the Beacon Light, which was located down river from the lighthouse. Every night and every morning the Hills were required to row to the Beacon light and light and extinguish it. Mrs. Reeves recalled that the lighthouses and all the buildings were painted black, including the railings and stairs. Although the Hill brothers remained bachelors, Mrs. Graves recalled that there were always family members staying at the lighthouse as well as passing travelers, including cowboys who spent the night at the light. One of her fondness memories is of her great uncles sitting on the wooden crates on the lower gallery smoking their pipes.
Mrs. Reeves recalled that life at the lighthouse was never boring, with so many people always around. The steamer Borealis Rex made stops three times a week with mail and the numerous cattle drivers who drove their cattle across the lighthouse land often stopped to visit. The Hills played a wax cylinder phonograph to entertain their guest. On Sundays, they always held religious services at the lighthouse.
In 1936, the keeper reported to the Superintendent of Lighthouses in New Orleans that a survey party had visited the lighthouse in order to survey a "possible route for a dredged channel from the jetties at Calcasieu Pass to the Calcasieu River." In his subsequent report to the Commissioner, the Superintendent wrote, "For a number of years there has been agitation on the part of Lake Charles, Louisiana, to secure an independent outlet to the sea either through Calcasieu Pass or in that vicinity." Such a channel would necessitate the removal of the lighthouse by either modifying the channel location or by dismantling the lighthouse and moving it to another location. By 1937, however, reports indicated that the "tower is old and it would not be practical to take it down and again use the old parts. If the channel is run as proposed it would be preferable to remove the tower . . ."
After much consideration, the Department of Commerce decided in favor of removing the lighthouse. The last letter referring to the proposed channel and the removal of the lighthouse stated, "As requested, six months notice of the date that removal of the Lighthouse Service facilities will be required will be given to your Department. It is anticipated that such removal will be required during the fiscal year 1940." Light Lists issued by the Lighthouse Service include the Calcasieu River Lighthouse through 1939. It was not listed in the Light List of 1940.
The channel was completed through Calcasieu Pass in 1941.
The site of the lighthouse is now reportedly located in the center of the ship channel. Its history was short by many standards, and insignificant by some, but as an aid to navigation it served the maritime waterways of Louisiana and the United States for more than 60 years. It may be gone forever, but it is not forgotten.
This story appeared in the
March 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.